Project-based music technology teaching

I use a project-based approach to teaching music technology. Technical concepts stick with you better if you learn them in the course of making actual music. Here’s the list of projects I assign to my college classes and private students. I’ve arranged them from easiest to hardest. The first five projects are suitable for a beginner-level class using any DAW–my beginners use GarageBand. The last two projects are more advanced and require a DAW with sophisticated editing tools and effects, like Ableton Live. If you’re a teacher, feel free to use these (and let me know if you do). Same goes for all you bedroom producers and self-teachers.

The projects are agnostic as to musical content, style or genre. However, the computer is best suited to making electronic music, and most of these projects work best in the pop/hip-hop/techno sphere. Experimental, ambient or film music approaches also work well. Many of them draw on the Disquiet Junto. Enjoy.

Tristan gets his FFT on


Assignment: Create a song using only existing loops. You can use these or these, or restrict yourself to the loops included with your DAW. Do not use any additional sounds or instruments.

For beginners, I like to separate this into two separate assignments. First, create a short (two or four bar) phrase using four to six instrument loops and beats. Then use that set of loops as the basis of a full length track, by repeating, and by having sounds enter and exit.


  • Basic DAW functions
  • Listening like a producer
  • Musical form and song structures
  • Intellectual property, copyright and authorship


  • MIDI loops are easier to edit and customize than audio loops.
  • Try slicing audio loops into smaller segments. Use only the front or back half of the loop. Or rearrange segments into a different order.

final song


Assignment: Create a piece of music using MIDI and software instruments. Do not record or import any audio. You can use MIDI from any source, including: playing keyboards, drum pads or other interfaces; drawing in the piano roll; importing scores from notation programs; downloading MIDI files from the internet (for example, from here); or using the Audio To MIDI function in your DAW. 

I don’t treat this as a composition exercise (unless students want to make it one.) Feel free to use an existing piece of music. The only requirement is that the end result has to sound good. Simply dragging a classical or pop MIDI into the DAW is likely to sound terrible unless you put some thought into your instrument choices. If you do want to create something original, try these compositional prompts.


  • MIDI recording and editing
  • Quantization, swing, and grooves
  • “Real” vs “fake” instruments
  • Synthesized vs sampled sounds
  • Drum programming
  • Interfaces and controllers


  • For beginners, see this post on beatmaking fundamentals.
  • Realism is unattainable. Embrace the fakeness.
  • Find a small segment of a classical piece and loop it.
  • Rather than playing back a Bach keyboard piece on piano or harpsichord, set your instrument to drums or percussion, and get ready for joy.

Montclair State Music Tech 101

Found sound

Assignment: Record a short environmental sound and incorporate it into a piece of music. You can edit and process your found sound as you see fit. Variation: use existing sounds from Freesound.


  • Audio recording, editing, and effects
  • The musical potential of “non-musical” sounds


  • Students usually record their sounds with their phones, and the resulting recording quality is usually bad. Try using EQ, compression, delay, reverb, distortion, and other effects to mitigate or enhance poor sound quality and background noise.

pyt stems

Peer remix

Assignment: Remix a track by one of your classmates (or friends, or a stranger on the internet.) Feel free to incorporate other pieces of music as well. Follow your personal definition of the word “remix.” That might mean small edits and adjustments to the mix and effects, or a radical reworking leading to complete transformation of the source material.

There are endless variations on the peer remix. Try the “metaremix,” where students remix each others’ remixes, to the nth degree as time permits. Also, do group remix activities like Musical Shares or FX Roulette.


  • Collaboration and authorship
  • Sampling
  • Mashups
  • Evolution of musical ideas
  • Musical critique using musical language


  • A change in tempo can have dramatic effects on the mood and feel of a track.
  • Adding sounds is the obvious move, but don’t be afraid to remove things too.

Self remix

Assignment: Remix one of your own projects, using the same guidelines as the peer remix. This is a good project for the end of the semester/term.

Song transformation

Assignment: Take an existing song and turn it into a new song. Don’t use any additional sounds or MIDI.


  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality


  • You can transform short segments simply by repeating them out of context. For example, try taking single chords or lyrical phrases and looping them.


Shared sample

Assignment: Take a short audio sample (five seconds or less) and build a complete piece of music out of it. Do not use any other sounds. This is the most difficult assignment here, and the most rewarding one if you can pull it off successfully.


  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality


  • Pitch shifting and timestretching are your friends.
  • Short bursts of noise can be tuned up and down to make drums.
  • Extreme timestretching produces great ambient textures.

Mobile music at IMPACT

Writing assignments

I like to have students document their process in blog posts. I ask: What sounds and techniques did you use? Why did you use them? Are you happy with the end result? Given unlimited time and expertise, what changes would you make? Do you consider this to be a valid form of musical creativity?

This semester I also asked students to write reviews of each others’ work in the style of their preferred music publication. In the future, I plan to have students write a review of an imaginary track, and then assign other students to try to create the track being described.

The best way to learn how to produce good recordings is to do critical listening exercises. I assign students to create musical structure and space graphs in the spirit of William Moylan.

Further challenges

The projects above were intended to be used for a one-semester college class. If I were teaching over a longer time span or I needed more assignments, I would draw from the Disquiet JuntoMaking Music by Dennis DeSantis, or the Oblique Strategies cards. Let me know in the comments if you have additional recommendations.

Theory for Producers

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new interactive online music course called Theory for Producers: The Black Keys. It’s a joint effort by Soundfly and the NYU MusEDLab, representing the culmination of several years worth of design and programming. We’re super proud of it.

Theory for Producers: The Black Keys

The course makes the abstractions of music theory concrete by presenting them in the form of actual songs you’re likely to already know. You can play and improvise along with the examples right in the web browser using the aQWERTYon, which turns your computer keyboard into an easily playable instrument. You can also bring the examples into programs like Ableton Live or Logic for further hands-on experimentation. We’ve spiced up the content with videos and animations, along with some entertaining digressions into the Stone Age and the auditory processing abilities of frogs.

So what does it mean that this is music theory for producers? We’re organizing the material in a way that’s easiest and most relevant to people using computers to create the dance music of the African diaspora: techno, hip-hop, and their various pop derivatives. This music carries most of its creative content outside of harmony: in rhythm, timbre, and repetitive structure. The harmony is usually static, sitting on a loop of a few chords or just a single mode. Alongside the standard (Western) major and minor scales, you’re just as likely to encounter more “exotic” (non-Western) sounds.

Music theory classes and textbooks typically begin with the C major scale, because it’s the easiest scale to represent and read in music notation. However, C major is not necessarily the most “basic” or fundamental scale for our intended audience. Instead, we start with E-flat minor pentatonic, otherwise known as the black keys on the piano. The piano metaphor is ubiquitous both in electronic music hardware and software, and pentatonics are even easier to play on piano than diatonic scales. E-flat minor pentatonic is more daunting in notated form than C major, but since dance and hip-hop producers tend not to be able to read music anyway, that’s no obstacle. And if producers want to use keys other than E-flat minor (or G-flat major), they can keep playing the black keys and then transpose the MIDI later.

The Black Keys is just the first installment in Theory For Producers. Next, we’ll do The White Keys, otherwise known as the modes of C major. We’re planning to start that course not with C major itself, but with G Mixolydian mode, because it’s a more familiar sound in Afrodiasporic music than straight major. After that, we’ll do a course about chords, and one about rhythm. We hope you sign up!

Update: oh hey, we’re on Lifehacker

Teaching reflections

Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.

Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology

I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.

MSU Intro to Music Tech

The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way.

Having now taught three semesters of Intro to Music Tech at MSU, my format is starting to gel. The students spend most of the semester creating tracks. They do one using only the loops that come with GarageBand, one using only MIDI and software instruments, one that includes a field recording they made with their phones, and so on. I started having them remix each other’s tracks this past semester, and it was such a smash hit that I’m going to have future classes do a whole series of peer remixes.

Montclair is a fairly traditional conservatory. For many students, my class is the only time in their college careers they get to make music according to their own sensibilities and tastes. It’s also usually the only time they engage critically with recordings, or electronic dance music, or hip-hop, or pop song forms, or sampling, or mixing and audio processing. I’m glad to be able to fill these vacuums, but I wish I had more than one semester to do it in.

Aside from creative music-making, the students do a couple of presentations, one on a song they think is interesting, and one on a topic of their choice. They also write blog posts about the process of creating their tracks. This last assignment is a persistent obstacle, since no one seems to share my enthusiasm for process documentation. Next semester I’m going to try introducing some of the cooperative/competitive spirit of the peer remixes by having them write reviews of each other’s tracks. Maybe that will get them to invest their writing with the same creativity they put into the music assignments.

Montclair State Advanced Computer Music Composition

This past fall I got to teach my first advanced class, and it went amazingly well. We used Ableton Live, my DAW of choice, and the guys (it was all guys) banged out tracks at a rapid clip for the entire semester. As with the intro class, I spent most of the time on the creative process, and dealt with Ableton functionality and audio engineering topics as they came up.

Tristan gets his FFT on

Each assignment came with some kind of tight technical restriction, but no stylistic restrictions. As with the intro class, the advanced dudes did tracks using only existing loops, only MIDI, and found sound. They did peer remixing and self remixing as well. The two hardest and most interesting assignments were to create a new track using only samples of an existing track, and then to create a new track using only a single five-second Duke Ellington sample. (These assignments were inspired heavily by the Disquiet Junto.) The more tightly I constrained the students, the more ingenuity they displayed. Listen for yourself:

As with the intro class, I tried to have the advanced dudes document their process with blog posts. As with the intro class, they showed zero interest. In the future, I’ll have to get more creative with the writing component. Also, I’d like to not have the class be entirely male.

NYU Music Education Technology Practicum

This class is meant to be a grounding in music tech for future music teachers. I’m even more time-constrained at NYU than at Montclair, and I teach in a regular classroom rather than a computer lab. While my class time at Montclair is mostly devoted to music-making, at NYU I’m forced to do more lectures, demos and listening sessions. It is very far from ideal. I have no idea how NYU can charge so much money without offering such a basic-seeming amenity as a room with computers in it for the music students. However, NYU does have one advantage over Montclair as a teaching environment, which is that I can hold a couple of class sessions in an extremely fancy recording studio.

Catherine and Joseph in the Dolan Studio

I mostly take the same approach at NYU as I do at Montclair, and use most of the same assignments. The major difference is that the NYU kids do a critical listening project, where they pick a recording and graph out its musical structure and spatial layout. It’s a difficult exercise, but an invaluable one. I did it in grad school, and it improved my analytical listening abilities significantly. We used to do the same assignment at Montclair, but the students were really not into it, like to the point of refusing to do it, so sadly we had to drop it from the syllabus. I hope we can find a way to reinstate it.

This past semester, the majority of my NYU kids were music business majors, which was pretty great. They came in with less musical experience than the education majors–sometimes with none at all–but they had less to unlearn, and they threw themselves confidently into producing tracks. This coming semester I have a bunch more music business kids. I’m attracting them because my class is the only one at Steinhardt that does intro-level creative music making in the pop idiom. I’m clearly filling a vacuum, and I’m hoping that I’m just the thin edge of the wedge, both for my own sake and the future music educators of NYU.

Interface designs

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is baking education into a suite of creative music making and learning tools. As my friend and colleague Adam Bell likes to say, purchasers of a computer are purchasing a music education. We’re trying to make that education a better and more enjoyable one, whether our users are in formal classroom settings or playing around on their own. You can read about the lab’s various projects here. My own contributions are largely conceptual, though I’ve also devoted a lot of attention to making useful and inspiring presets.

Cold Sweat on the Groove Pizza

The Ed Sullivan Fellows Program

This winter, the MusEDLab is launching a brand new initiative, mentoring a group of young people from challenging circumstances in music and technology. I’ll be teaching the music side, doing a custom-tailored version of my intro class syllabus. Sullivan Fellows will also work with my colleagues in the lab on programming and design projects. This summer, we’ll have a showcase event as part of the 2016 IMPACT Conference. The goal is to help the Fellows get launched in careers in music and/or technology. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the coming weeks.

Online courses with Soundfly

The MusEDLab is working with a music ed startup on some new interactive online courses. The first is called Music Theory For Bedroom Producers, and we expect to launch next month. I wrote a lot of the materials, and am appearing in some videos. Soundfly has ace designers, animators and programmers, so expect a rich multimedia experience. More on this as it gets closer.

Everything else

For the past few years, I’ve been a teaching artist with NYU’s IMPACT workshop. Below, you can see some participants making beats on an iPad. The workshop is a crash course not just in music, but in theater, dance, video, and the intersection of all of the above. I’m still very much figuring out my role in the whole thing, but so is everyone involved.

Mobile music at IMPACT

I continue to teach private lessons, do freelance production and composition, do some consulting, write for online publications, and generally keep hustling for gigs. If you’d like to have me do any of these things, be in touch.